Looking Tragedy in the Eyes

At the Convention last week, the magnificent array of speakers did their job of giving us some strong and pithy arguments against the encroachments on our shared civil liberties. Memorable rhetoric is important, because the shifting of public opinion is not shifted by one speech by Philip Pullman, (however lyrical) but by a hundred thousand discussions in homes and offices, and more than a few more opinion columns and TV shows in the coming years. The memorable, confident arguments will be remembered and repeated, and they will persuade.

However, while there was much pride expressed in taking the side of the underdog, its seems that when it comes to admitting the full implications of our values, we do not always sound so confident. One issue I did not hear raised was how to address the possibility that specific crimes may be committed, when some of the state’s major incursions into our liberty are rolled back. It is crucial that those of us who push for a tempering of databases and surveillance own these possibilities and embrace them.

Its a difficult argument to broach, because almost all of the debate centres around the idea that all the government’s new legal and security measures are actually ineffective: we argue that ID cards wouldn’t have stopped 7/7, say; or that Torture and rendition leads to useless intelligence.

Unfortunately, although the warnings raised by the authoritarians are usually phantoms, sometimes they are based on a kind of truth. A stop-and-search policy that alienates black and Asian youths might also reduce crime; a comprehensive DNA database might actually speed up the detection of a murder. Keep the entire Muslim population under 24 hour surveillance, and sooner or later you will stumble accross a disgruntled Islamist militant, ready for marytrdom.

So when I say that the civil liberties lobby must “own” these possiblities, I mean that we should admit that a more liberal approach in some areas might mean that yes, there will be another Mohammed Siddique Khan, another 7/7; that, yes, there will be another Ian Huntley, and another hollyandjessica. Only when these horrible possibilities are admitted, can we truly begin to explain that the “mythical state of absolute security” (as Dominic Grieve put it) is unachievable as well as undesirable, and so win the argument on our own terms, not those of the authoritarians and the populists.

Ultimately, we need to be prepared to defend of this political philosophy in the wake of a terrible atrocity, because that is when it will be most under threat. Just as just as Sir Ian Blair and Cressida Dick looked into the eyes of the de Menezes family (or perhaps they never did) when the inevitable outcome of their shoot-to-kill policy was realised at Stockwell, at some point we may have to look into the eyes of other widows, orphans or traumatised parents. We will have to make an abstract political argument in the face of a very practical and real tradgey. This will not be as easy as standing in a room full of supporters and affirming “freedom”.

I’ve been highly equivocal above. “Specific crimes may be committed”, I said. They are by no means certain, and can be avoided. Our arguments for civil liberties become more effective if we can also provide alternative suggestions for improving security. Two of the breakout sessions I attended at the convention, The Left and Liberty and the left, and Xenophobia both made attempts at this, putting forward policies that nip crimminal behaviour in the bud, before it becomes something that only draconian laws can combat.

The question is, can such policies be enacted soon enough to prevent another outrage? Unlikely, I’m afraid, which means there are some extremely difficult arguments ahead. Those who have the courage to make them will need our support.

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